10/14/2014 09:00 EDT | Updated 12/14/2014 05:59 EST

Gender-empowering tees, unisex fashions offer alternative to stereotypical styles

TORONTO - While several retailers have faced a recent backlash over kids' clothing criticized as "sexist," a few companies are taking pains to offer gender neutral or empowering garments.

Carolyn Danckaert and Aaron Smith had trouble finding empowering books for their four young nieces, so they decided to create their own. The spouses co-founded the website A Mighty Girl, curating a collection of books, toys, movies, music and clothing. Danckaert said a T-shirt bearing the quote "Though she be but little she is fierce" from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream" is a popular option among young girls.

"People are just excited to find these things because if they're used to going to conventional stores where these types of empowering products aren't represented, they're not as easy to find," she said from Pittsburgh.

Ian Black and his wife, Cheryl, recently acquired Runalicious, a Nova Scotia-based running-inspired women's apparel company which also creates clothing for youth. Silhouettes of female runners stretching or in mid-stride are among the images seen on shirts featuring messages like "5K Girl" and "Some Girls Chase Boys... I Pass 'Em."

"It's been just positive," Black said. "We've also run a couple of competitions for people to come up with their own phrases as well."

Phrases on T-shirts have landed some companies in hot water of late. Target came under fire for baby boy pyjamas with a Superman logo and the words "Future Man of Steel" while a similar girls' item featured the line: "I Only Date Heroes." And a junior tee sold at Walmart emblazoned with the words "Training to be Batman's Wife" led to an apology from DC Comics and a promise to review its licensing and design process.

Last year, The Children's Place apologized and pulled its girls' "My Best Subjects" T-shirt which featured checkmarks next to the words "shopping," "music" and "dancing," while the corresponding box next to "math" was left unchecked with the slogan "Well, Nobody’s Perfect" scrawled underneath in brackets.

A Mighty Girl website creator Danckaert said representations of girls are becoming more diverse, pointing to the evolution of princess archetypes in Disney films. But when she posts stories related to kids' clothing controversies, there's usually a minority who argue that those who don't like the garments shouldn't buy them.

"We always push back a little bit on both of those because, one, if you ever want to see change, you actually do have to raise these issues because fundamentally, just not buying it is not going to actually lead to any change," Danckaert said.

"The company's not going to understand what the critique is with the product — ''Why aren't you buying it?' — unless you're communicating with them."

Kate Pietrasik, meanwhile, opted to dissolve the gender divide entirely with her unisex kids' clothing company Tootsa MacGinty.

The U.K.-based Pietrasik had previously lived in France for more than a decade and noticed kids there dressed "more neutrally." However, she found kids' clothing options weren't as diverse as she'd anticipated when she became a mom.

"I was just shocked at the choice I had for Ruby which was all pink and sparkles. And not just that, but also fairies and princesses, and for some reason, kittens and not dogs, and bunnies but not a tiger," she recalled. "Even the motifs were gendered. And I just thought: 'Wow.'"

Pietrasik channelled her previous design experience into her creating her company, and said she absorbs creative ideas from her observing the interests of her five-year-old.

"She likes animals, I like animals, so they often play a big part," said Pietrasik, whose current range of knitwear and T-shirts showcases images of pandas, penguins, bears and horses. Pietrasik also likes to base collections on particular themes, such as British seaside or a mountain adventure.

Other companies are offering an alternative vision for kids' clothing while also seeking to shatter gender stereotypes.

Melissa Wardy originally focused on girl empowerment when she launched Pigtail Pals in 2009. The Wisconsin-based mother of two and author of "Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween" has since expanded to encompass Ballcap Buddies under her company's banner in an effort to boost boys.

Wardy's "There Are So Many Ways To Be..." logo designs for boys and girls feature kids of different sizes, shapes, ethnicities and physical abilities, depicting youngsters with interests in everything from animals to athletics and the arts. Many designs also feature boys and girls playing together which Wardy thinks is "critically important" in child development.

"It's not that difficult to not use gender stereotypes when you're creating media for kids or products for kids," said Wardy, who has customers across Canada. "I'm just trying to walk the way that I talk about it my book and in my blog and in my parenting community on Facebook, just showing people that this is how it can be and should be.

"If we were being more responsible as consumers and as product creators, this is more what childhood should be represented as and look like."

Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.



A Mighty Girl:

Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies:


Tootsa MacGinty: